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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Joaquín Clausell

Ixtacalco, Joaquin Clausell
Americans have long had a national, no-nonsense, love affair with Realism or what most art people would call naturalism. It's a mile wide and dozens of feet deep dating back at least a couple hundred years. It has become so much a part of "who we are" as an art-appreciating nation we take it for granted, seldom giving it a second though. However, as I mentioned yesterday (the item below) we have also fallen in love with Impressionism, though our attachment for this French delicacy is neither as deep nor wide in our national psyche as Realism. Impressionism is, after all, something of a "foreign influence" which we have a natural tendency to approach cautiously. Like French fries or French pastries, we've given Impressionism our own cultural twist in a sort of Franco-American manner the French would find either mildly amusing or not-so-mildly derogatory.
Laguna Azteca, Joaquin Clausell
We Americans also tend to think that we were the sole beneficiary of this painting gift in much the same manner as the French bestowed upon us Bartholdi's Liberty Enlightening the World (the Statue of Liberty). As tempting as this analogy might seem at first glance, it's not valid. French Impression didn't simply sail across the Atlantic and take up residence, immigrating to the United States alone. Instead, it radiated from its birthplace into virtually every dark, geographic corner of 19th-century art, (if we must use the earlier analogy), "enlightening the world" with its stunning brilliance and beauty. As Paris-trained painters returned to their homelands during the final decades of the 19th-century, they took with them the Impressionist tonal pallete, if not always the more complex technical attributes of the style. However, in the case of Mexico, a young, largely self-taught, painter named Joaquin Clausell did both. He was the conduit through which his country first discovered and came to love Impressionism.
Had Clausell chosen the life of a painter over one predominantly involved in political activism, he might well be considered Mexico's greatest artist. In his own time however, he was little known for his art, but quite well-known by Mexican governmental authorities as a major "pain in the ass."
Today, Joaquin Clausell is best known for his painting, although he was also an orator, journalist, politician, and lawyer. I referred to him earlier as also a "conduit." In this case, that term is very much an apt analogy. Even though he spent some time in Paris where he was influenced by the impressionists, particularly Camille Pissarro, there's no indication at all of his having studied art there, painting there, or even having actually met his painting idol. In large part he escaped to Paris in order to remain a free man, having been jailed in his homeland on numerous occasions for his radical, anti-government views and activities. It was only in returning to Mexico around 1899 at the age of thirty-five, that Clausell first picked up a brush and began to paint. In the years that followed, the man had two painting careers, the first from around 1903 to about 1910, the second, a decade later, from around 1920 until his death in 1935. Between those two periods, the Mexican Revolution intervened.
Landscape with Hut, Joaquin Clausell
Despite Clausell's impact upon Mexican art in the form of his impressionist works, his surviving paintings themselves, some four-hundred of them, appear surprisingly unexceptional, even given the fact that around a hundred are quite large in size. Clausell painted mostly on canvas but when circumstances prevented him from doing so, he was not above rendering works on wood and even cardboard. With few exceptions he painted landscapes, and seascapes. Almost never were there human figures or even much indication of any human presences. Landscape with Hut (above) is a modest exception. The style and palette are impressionist. The content is purely Mexican.
Clausell Study, Pino Suarez, Mexico 
The single exception to his penchant for remote coastal landscapes can be found in what some have called his "Sistine Chapel" of Impressionism--the barren walls of his rooftop studio in Pino Suarez, Mexico (above), which exhibit more experimentation and a wider variety of themes. These images depict members of his family, other artists, religious icons, nudes, and animals. There are elements related to Symbolism, showing the influence of artists from Paul Gauguin to Paul Sérusier. Female figures were sometimes portrayed in a negative light. These works have received less attention from both the public and critics, mostly because of their relative inaccessibility and (until recently) their poor condition. Clausell did not sign his paintings and rarely dated them, making cataloging and a chronology very difficult. Moreover, he did not consider himself a professional painter and was something of a recluse, not selling or promoting his work. In fact, he was often known to give away his paintings.
Self-portrait (the painter), 1910, Joaquin Clausell
With few exceptions, Clausell did not associate with contemporary Mexican artists. Instead he served as an art teacher at the “escuelas de aire libre” (free and open art classes given in parks and other public spaces) though he became a director of the art school in Iztacalco in 1930. It has only been in recent years that Clausell has been recognized as Mexico's most prominent Impressionist. Even though he existed on the fringes of the Mexican art scene during his lifetime, his work was noticed and praised by a number of well-known contemporaries. In an exhibition in 1921, his paintings caught the attention of the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, who had just returned from Europe. Rivera later visited Clausell in his studio and proclaimed him to be the best of Mexico’s landscape artists as well as a “painter-poet” who expressed the natural beauty of the country. Clausell died in 1935 while on an outing with friends at the Lagos de Zempoala area south of Mexico City. He was walking on a hill near the lake when the ground gave way under his feet causing him to fall down an embankment. The resulting landslide covered and suffocated him.


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